October 14, 2007

This old church

The church I am serving is old, and we are celebrating its oldness this year. It is a miracle to be in a church that has been around for more than two centuries. That is a long time. I sometimes think about the people who started the church. Documents from the time preserve their intentions, written in spider web script on fragile, crumbly paper. They wanted a church that would have strong preaching and sound doctrine, a church that would prepare young people for a life of service and faithfulness, a church that would not be subject to the rules of the prevailing society. I wonder how well they would think we have done in continuing their legacy.

It is astonishing to try to take in all the change that has happened in the world since this church was begun. That change is reflected in the church, as well. Sermons are shorter, for one thing, and they are less theological, too, I suppose. The preacher, at least this one, does not presume a level of Biblical literacy in the congregation, so sermons that teach are likely to focus on scripture rather than doctrine. The liturgy, literally “the work of the people,” has always been that, so now the liturgy is diverse and ecumenical. We incorporate prayers and practices from many Christian traditions. We sing music that was sung in the eighteenth century, and music that was written last week. We have a huge pipe organ -- and a djembe, an African drum. Worship leaders are not necessarily ordained, and (it would have shocked and appalled them!) the senior pastor is a woman.

At the same time, some things have not changed, and it is even more astonishing to ponder that. There is still an emphasis on strong preaching, a pattern that has persisted through the life of the church. The church has a renewed focus on preparing young adults for a life of meaning and mission, for a life of ministry – although we think of ministry in a much more expansive way than just being ordained. And this church is reclaiming what it means to be a countercultural institution.

When the church was founded, all churches in the area were under the control of a board of local pastors. They decided everything having to do with anything ecclesiastical. That this church broke away from that was extremely controversial at the time. We are not controversial in that same way now, but we are still countercultural. We are in a community where just being Christian can be controversial. Conservative members of our community feel that this church is too liberal, too “out there.” And liberal members of our community often see no need for church at all -- this one or any other, for that matter. And yet, here we are, not the cultural institution that this church once was, but still here, still worshiping, still trying to figure out what it means to be Christian in the world where we find ourselves.

It is fun to celebrate being old, having survived a long time. But it is not enough. The past is only prologue. There is that old saying that God has no grandchildren, meaning that those of each generation must establish their own new relationship with God, not relying on the previous generation to do that for them. What matters is here and now, and where we go from here and now. And just as I wonder what our predecessors would think about what we are doing, even more I wonder about those who come after us. What will they think? I pray they will see this as a faithful time of reawakening.

And through all of this, I realize anew that the church is always written in a spider web script, fragile and lovely, but still created from the strongest stuff that exists. It is only when we try to preserve what we have been that we crumble and disintegrate. So spin us out into our future and make us always aware of the now -- the eternal Now.

1 comment:

Erin said...

Congrats on the blog, Martha! I have a feeling that I will find much inspiration here. This entry is particularly moving and provocative to me. I think most people are working towards something in life, usually with the intention of 'getting it all together.' Perhaps they are going to college so that they can get a well-paying job. They may be working many jobs in order to save up for a down payment on a house or a nice car. If we could just accomplish our goal, we'd be happy. But there's always another goal, another want, something else that is necessary to make things perfect. Too often we focus intently on our goal without enjoying the present. I think this lesson is captured in your assertion that "It is only when we try to preserve what we have been that we crumble and disintegrate." In the same way that Jesus taught us not to store up treasures on earth, we must learn from and enjoy the current moment rather than banking all of our happiness on the endpoint. After all, the endpoint itself could be transient. Being an obsessive planner, this lesson is a call for me to look for God in the everyday, along the journey, rather than thinking that I'll catch up with Him at the finish line. God doesn't require (or necessarily want) us to 'get it all together.' Instead of neatly putting in place the pieces of my life (which could be smashed apart at any moment), I should enjoy things while they're present, knowing that they may be temporary and accepting the fact that God's plan for my life is dynamic, rather than a puzzle that is slowly pieced together.